A day in West Yorkshire

I’m thankful for lots of things. One of them, although far down the list, is that I was able to make my soccer pilgrimage to the north of England before the Wuhan coronavirus hit. (We were even able, in early February of this year, to take a vacation in the Dominican Republic.)

Last year on this date I was in Huddersfield, a city of about 160,000 in West Yorkshire. Harold Wilson, the Socialist Party prime minister of England, was from Huddersfield. There’s a big statue of him outside the train station.

Wilson wasn’t a very good prime minister in my opinion. He had a sense of humor though. After a party meeting on what position to take regarding the European Community, a reporter asked him, “What is the result?” Wilson responded by giving him a soccer score.

Soccer is what brought me to Huddersfield. I came to see the local team, the Huddersfield Town Terriers, take on Swansea City.

Huddersfield Town is one of those north of England teams that achieved glory in the early days of soccer, but then fell on hard times. After being relegated from the first tier of English football in 1972, the Terriers spent 45 years in the three lower tiers, and almost fell out of the fourth tier in 1993.

The Terriers finally returned to the first tier in 2017, despite having given up more goals than they scored that season. Somehow, they managed to survive a season in the top fight before being relegated in 2019, just in time for me to see them play.

Fans I talked to praised David Wagner, an “American” who managed the club those two season. He now coaches in his native Germany.

I had long wanted to see a second tier English football match. The desire began when the first tier went all “continental” with so many foreign players and coaches. I was fine with that development, but wanted to see an English match played the old fashioned “kick and run” way. At that time, I fancied I might see this style in the second tier.

Before long, however, second tier teams were playing the same style as teams in the first tier. They all aspired to be promoted and to thrive at the highest level of the game. So it made sense that they would import foreign players and play the continental way.

The starting eleven in the Huddersfield team I saw featured five non-British players, and all three substitutes used were foreigners. Swansea also had five non-Brits in the starting lineup.

By comparison, the Everton team I saw a few days earlier had six non-Brits and the lineup of their opponent, Norwich City, featured five.

The quality of the Huddersfield-Swansea match was comparable to that of the Everton-Norwich EPL clash. Norwich (now back in the second tier) played the best of the four teams and Everton played the worst on the day. Swansea played the dirtiest. Huddersfield was non-descript — neither good nor bad.

However, the refereeing, by an Australian, was well below the EPL standard. The ref’s unwilling to call clear fouls on the Swansea players caused fans to chant, “you don’t what you’re doing” on multiple occasions. Whether poor refereeing is characteristic of the second tier, I can’t say.

The home fans were pretty passionate, though not as wound up as the Everton fans in the notorious Gwladys Street End. The atmosphere suffered, though, because of the near absence of Swansea fans. The distance from Wales to Yorkshire, coupled with the match being played on a Tuesday night and perhaps a discouraging weather forecast, must have kept the chaps from Wales at home.

A Huddersfield supporter told me that if I wanted to see Terriers fans at their best, I should attend the derby against Leeds United. Leeds, though, has since been promoted to the EPL and, with a capable squad, will not likely be playing Huddersfield in the foreseeable future.

At this match, I heard none of the foul language hurled so freely in the Gwladys Street End at Goodison Park a few days before. However, I did see signs in the men’s room above the sink saying, “now that you have washed your hands, wash your mouth” and noting that children attend these matches.

The match ended 1-1. Huddersfield struggled to get a foothold and never looked like winning. It didn’t help that the ref sent off a Huddersfield midfielder towards the end of the match.

Twenty-one year old Lewis O’Brien, playing at left back, was the standout player for Huddersfield on the night. My seat give me a great view of his play in the first half and I was impressed — all the more so when I learned that he was a midfielder playing out of his normal position. At the end of the season, Huddersfield supporters voted O’Brien their player of the year.

Karlan Grant scored the Huddersfield goal. He looked a handful, but didn’t get enough opportunities to excel. Grant now plays regularly in the EPL for West Brom — the only one of the 28 who played that night who, to my knowledge, now plays in the top tier.

The best players for Swansea were their central midfielders, Jay Fulton and Matt Grimes. Forward Andre Ayew, a veteran of many successful years in the top flights of England and French football and scorer of 19 goals for Ghana, looked dangerous at times. He would be named Swansea player of the year.

I left the match thinking that neither team would be promoted or relegated. I was right, but only barely. Huddersfield had to scrap to avoid being dropped a second year in a row. The Terriers finished finished 18th of 24. The Swans came in sixth. They made it to the promotion playoffs on goal difference, but failed to advance.

Finally, a note about the people of Huddersfield. I found them very friendly, as I did the folks I encountered throughout the north of England during my week’s stay. This stands in marked contrast to my impression of Londoners on recent visits.

At the time of my visit, the north, traditionally a bastion of the Labour Party, was poised to give victory to Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party. This reinforced my favorable view of the region that I was so fortunate to visit just a few months ahead of the pandemic.